Thin…and unfit

Michael Metzger

Wobbly waifs.
This past fall, the Madrid fashion show banned overly thin models, saying unnatural thinness sends a terrible message. Organizers said models had to be within a healthy weight range. This image of waiflike women wobbling down runways is one way to better understand Islamist rage against America. Muslim fury is not against thin women but “thin” American churches. How’s that?

Prior to the 1950s, Islamic newspapers and books were generally if not uniformly respectful of America. A famous Muslim writer in 1833 described the United States as “among the greatest civilized countries in America, and in it worship in all faiths and religious communities is allowed.”1 In the 1870s American Civil War officers were applauded for helping modernize Middle East armies. The 1933 Saudi Arabian agreement with Standard Oil of California was welcomed. After World War II, increasing numbers of Muslims came to America while American products began to flow into the region. “America represented freedom and justice and opportunity. For many more, it represented wealth and power and success…”2 So what happened?

Smack in the middle of the twentieth century, between 1948 and 1950, a young Egyptian named Sayyib Qutb came to America and toured the country. He “observed that there were many churches but warned his readers that their numbers should not be misunderstood as an expression of real religious or spiritual feeling. Churches in America, he said, operate like businesses, competing for clients and for publicity, and using the same methods as stores and theaters to attract customers and audience. For the minister of a church, as for the manager of a business or a theater, success is what matters, and success is measured by size – bigness, numbers. To attract clientele, churches advertise shamelessly and offer what Americans most seek – “a good time” or “fun.”3 In Qutb’s mind, the church was becoming “thin.”

Yale professor Miroslav Volf agrees. He’s been warning Americans that the “more we reduce Christian faith to vague religiosity, the worse off we will be. Inversely, the more the Christian faith matters to its adherents as faith and the more they practice it as an ongoing tradition with strong ties to its origins… the better off we will be.” “Thin” but zealous practice of the Christian faith is likely to foster violence; “thick” and committed practice will help generate and sustain a culture of peace.”4

Our waiflike way of life explains at least part of Islamist rage. Now let’s be clear: Islamist terrorism is morally indefensible and repugnant. It’s also inconsistent with Islamic teachings. Yet Sayyib Qutb deserves at least some credit for denouncing the church’s unnatural thinness as sending a terrible message. Look at our “product” 60 years later. Evangelical divorce rates are slightly higher than the general population.5 Worse, 90 percent of all divorced born-again couples split after they embrace Christianity.6 Professor Brad Wilcox, a Princeton-trained sociologist who specializes in family issues says, “Compared with the rest of the population, conservative Protestants are more likely to divorce.”7

Numerous surveys indicate Protestant evangelicals cheat, plagiarize, lie, download illegally, covet, gossip and gripe just as much as people who profess no faith or differing faiths. We’re in debt, like everyone, up to our eyeballs. We yearn for what is beyond our means just as much as everyone else. Perhaps our most remarkable characteristic is how unremarkable we have become. Other than higher rates of church attendance, zeal and financial giving, Christianity has become for the most part “thin.”

When Sayyib Qutb returned to Egypt in 1950, his attacks against America were so vehement that Egyptian authorities threw him in prison. When he was finally released in 1964, Qutb published a major work condemning America. His book influenced many including the Ayatolleh Khomeini. In 1979, Khomeini became one of the first to describe America as “the Great Satan.” Notice that Islamist rage was not directed at Central America or South America. Only North America. Islamist terrorists were furious at a thin – and no longer fit – American church.

Baylor University sociologist was recently asked: “Many churches are lowering the bar to make religion more popular. How would you analyze their efforts?” His response: “They’re death wishes.” Stark says the fastest growing faiths in the world today include the Mormons, who demand a “thicker” and more robust activism than many evangelical churches. Islamists would have more difficulty whipping up rage if we in America who profess to follow Christ practiced “thick” Christianity.

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1 Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (Random House: New York, 2003), p.67
2 Ibid, p.69
3 Ibid, pp.87-79
4 Miroslav Volf, “Christianity and Violence,” a paper delivered at Yale University in April of 2005. Volf is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale University Divinity School.
5 George Barna, “Family,” 2000. Available from Barna Research Online, http://216.87.179/cgi-bin/pagecategory.asp?categoryid=20. See also George Barna and Mark Hatch, Boiling Point: It Only Takes One Degree (Regal, 2001), p. 42.
6 The Barna Group, The Barna Update, “Born Again Adults Less Likely to Co-Habit, Just As Likely to Divorce,” August 6, 2001, http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=95.
7 W. Bradford Wilcox, “Conservative Protestants and the Family,” in A Public Faith: Evangelicals and Civic Engagement, ed. Michael Cromartie (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), p. 63

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